In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and in Francis Ford Coppola’s loose adaptation/re-imagining Apocalypse Now, the character of Kurtz is portrayed as a white man who has chosen to separate himself from his civilized contemporaries and rule over a native sect of people in a faraway land. While both characters come from the same source, there are significant differences between the two. While Heart of Darkness’ Mr. Kurtz portrays specifically the imperialism and hopeless ambition inherent in the ivory trade, Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) inhabits the horrors of the Vietnam War and what happens to men when they are subjected to such hell. To that end, Conrad’s book is much more of a condemnation of imperialism as an economic construct, while Coppola’s presentation of Kurtz includes the shell shock of war in among his lordship over the simple people he rules.
Understanding the differences between these two variations on Kurtz allows the audience to see the contexts into which they have been placed. Both Kurtzes, to an extent, represent the dangers of imperialism; they have both usurped the native peoples and used their advanced knowledge of industry and technology to appear as gods to the native peoples they encounter. Both characters are absolutely a product of their cultures – Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz is a product of the ivory trade, in which whites journeyed in large companies to the wild African continent in order to track down this hotly-desired material. Kurtz, therefore, is incredibly preoccupied with the ivory above all else, his rule of the people seemingly secondary to his capitalist pursuits until he fully accepts his role as god among the people:
"You should have heard him say, 'My ivory.' Oh, yes, I heard him. 'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my - ' everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him - but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible — it was not good for one either - trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land - I mean literally." (Conrad 1865)
The white man in this world seems to go after ivory without exception – even Marlow is entranced by its divine appearance – and nothing will stop them from obtaining it for use in their own world. This is the essence of imperialism; the usurping of materials and resources from a less developed nation or region for the benefit of the host nation. While Mr. Kurtz does lose his way and turns mad with power, his initial goal was to cultivate ivory for the first world, making his initial motivation chiefly a capitalist one.
Comparing this with Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, their basic motivations are similar but based in slightly different ideologies. The military attitudes that pervade the film are dissimilar to the economic concerns of Conrad’s “Company,” as his motivations and goals depend on conquering an enemy rather than making profit. Also, unlike Heart of Darkness, the narrator character (Martin Sheen’s Willard) is instructed to kill Kurtz rather than just check up on him – he is seen as a liability for the United States military, as he has conducted an unsanctioned incursion into neutral Cambodia. His presence within that region, in which he has amassed an army of native Cambodians called the Montagnard, is a threat to American security and integrity within the Vietnam theater. This is in contrast to the treatment of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness; the chief accountant regales Marlow with tales of how Kurtz is a wonderful agent for the Company, for example. Conrad’s economic take on Kurtz leaves him as an economic asset, while Coppola turns Kurtz into a military risk.
The purposes of both Kurtzes are fairly similar – both wish to achieve greatness and godliness in their own ways, which they achieve through the flattery and adulation of their native followers. Thinking themselves superior to the natives they rule over, they find it easy to figure out how best to manipulate them in order to do their bidding. However, in both works the Kurtz character ends up believing their own rhetoric, as evidenced by the aforementioned passage in Heart of Darkness. While Kurtz still worships ivory, he has moved on to becoming a god himself, and craving the worship of the people. Furthermore, he manages to achieve a sexual dominance over the African natives as well as an economic one; his Congolese mistress is coveted by both Kurtz and Marlow, likening her to the wilderness. Both of these white men hope to tame the wilderness, and that is one way in which Mr. Kurtz can be representative of Western imperialism.
In the case of Col. Kurtz, however, his motivation is not for material goods, but as a way to get away from the horrors that he experienced in war. Col. Kurtz, in essence, sees enough death and destruction that he cannot bear to participate in the war anymore. In a way, the creation of his own empire is a way to shield himself from “errand boys” like Willard coming to assassinate him. To that end, he retreats into moral philosophies and what he perceives to be lost ideals in the world of men: “ You have to have men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling without passion without judgment without judgment! Because it's judgment that defeats us” (Apocalypse Now). These values are the things that he wishes to restore to the world, as he feels that the chaos of the Vietnam War indicates that these values are missing. Coppola makes this point of view attractive to the audience, as the scenes that preceded this drop Willard into a hellish world of uncaring officers, horribly murdered Vietnamese, and an overall feeling of lawlessness and savagery on both sides.
In many ways, both Kurtzes are indicative of the host cultures that their creators wish them to represent. This is illustrated through the intriguing similarities the ‘native’ Kurtzes share with the narrators who go after them. In the case of Marlow, he is shown throughout the novel to be just as indifferent toward people of other races as Kurtz; early on, he establishes that he does not really think of the natives as human: “They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly” (Conrad 97). His patronizing friendship toward his African helmsman and his ogling of Kurtz’s mistress add to the idea that Kurtz is merely the English imperialist ivory hunter taken to his logical conclusion.
Willard, meanwhile, is just as shadowy and withdrawn from human society as Kurtz is, showing an America that is weary and shell-shocked by the Vietnam War. Right at the beginning of the film, he is sullen, depressed and alcoholic; he even hallucinates at times. He is tempted by Kurtz to join him, especially after hearing his anti-war rhetoric; Willard is a person who would not belong in normal life, and can only find happiness in the battlefields of Vietnam. It is only through the choice to kill Kurtz that he manages to cleanse himself of his own demons and restore his humanity.
Comparing the two Kurtzes in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, it is clear that they are extensions of the various insanities of the cultures that spawned them. Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s book finds himself superior to the natives because of his superior intellect and perception; his objectives come from a largely economic standpoint, as he seeks the ivory that England wants. Col. Kurtz, on the other hand, seeks solace and comfort from a horrifying war that seems to have no end and merely succeeds in killing more and more people. Because of that, Conrad’s work is a more direct parallel to imperialism, due to its deeply economic motivations, whereas Coppola is more preoccupied with how the Vietnam War affects Americans than he does the Vietnamese.
Conrad, Joseph. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Blackwood's Magazine, 1899. Print.
Coppola, Francis Ford (dir.). Apocalypse Now. Perf. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert
Duvall. United Artists, 1979. Film.